For years, The Ohio State University has held dear to its full moniker. One could charitably assume that Ohio’s flagship public university, with its main campus in the capital of Columbus, feels the need to differentiate itself. According to Ohio’s board of higher education, the state has 14 public universities (spread across 24 regional campuses) and 23 community colleges. That leaves out the more than 60 private non-profit colleges and universities educating the young, intelligent minds of the Buckeye State. Prospective students, college football fans, alumni, employers, or really anyone could confuse Ohio State for Kent State or Wright State, both also in Ohio.
But the university’s insistence on emphasizing the “The” in its name just went a step above. According to Jim Woods of the (lowercase) Columbus Dispatch, the university recently issued a request for a trademark to the title, “The Ohio State University,” claiming that the article “The” should be considered a part of the trademark when used with the full name of the institution. The application for the trademark was first revealed by a patent lawyer living in Washington, D.C.
Reviewing the university’s trademark application, Woods writes, “The request is for a standard character trademark for the title ‘The Ohio State University.’ Some of the items covered would include T-shirts, baseball caps and hats, according to the university’s application.”
Unsurprisingly, the news of the application has brought The Ohio State University under some derision. As catalogued by columnist Ted Decker, also of the Dispatch, “THE latest push to become THE Best Damn Brand in THE Land drew some chuckles and eye rolls ... and probably even a few guffaws.” Decker noted that Ohio University, another public research university in the state, tweeted, “Good morning from THE first university in the state of Ohio.” Longtime rival the University of Michigan unsurprisingly joined in on the pile-on with a tweet suggesting it should try to trademark the “of.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the government agency that determines such matters of intellectual property says, “A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.”
In a press statement issued by The Ohio State University’s communications department and published by the Associated Press, spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the application, arguing that the school “works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” The AP also notes that The Ohio State University had “previously secured other trademarks, including names of football coaches Woody Hayes and Urban Meyer.” In 2017, according to Mark Cooper at Tulsa World, The Ohio State University attempted to trademark “OSU,” only to see Oklahoma State University, which also refers to itself as OSU, file an appeal in objection. An earlier agreement from the 1970s had drawn geographic boundaries around where each institution held the trademark, but with the web flattening out such distinctions, they reached a new agreement that “there is no likelihood of confusion, mistake or deception” between the two OSUs.
The USPTO will determine the validity of The Ohio State University’s claim, but even if it does grant the trademark, it will be up to the school to enforce it.
Until then, however, you’re free to use “the” as you please.